August 31, 2006 in Nation/World

Philippines oil spill cleanup uses shear ingenuity

Teresa Cerojano Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Maximum security inmates from the national penitentiary have their heads shaved Wednesday in part of the effort to use hair to contain the oil spill off Guimaras Island in central Philippines.
(Full-size photo)

MANILA, Philippines – Volunteers in the Philippines are getting shorn to save the shore. The cast-off clippings of human hair are going to be used to help mop up oil from a disastrous spill that has fouled beaches, coral reefs and mangrove swamps.

Faced with its worst oil spill and scant funds, the Philippines turned to the low-tech campaign after a tanker sank and began leaking bunker oil three weeks ago off Guimaras Island. The province is known for its beach resorts and pristine marine reserves.

The Southeast Asian nation plans to put cast-off clippings of human hair from salon owners and other volunteers in permeable sacks for use as improvised booms to contain the oil.

Even President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has joined in, ordering a government task force to set up collection centers for hair and chicken feathers, which also are being used, along with straw and other natural materials.

About 500 hair salons in metropolitan Manila have joined the “Stop the Oil Spill” drive by collecting hair clippings from their shops, said Linda Francisco, president of the Salon Owners and Hairdressers Association Inc.

Danilo Dador, an officer at the maximum-security wing of the national penitentiary in Manila’s Muntinlupa suburb, said Wednesday that most of the more than 11,000 inmates there have volunteered to have their hair shaved or trimmed.

“It needs to be stopped, and they said it could be stopped by hair,” said one inmate volunteer, Bongbong Acoleds.

The idea cropped up at a news conference when a member of the environmental group Greenpeace pointed to an experiment in the United States that found human hair useful in cleaning up oil.

Alabama hairdresser Phil McCrory reportedly got the idea while watching coverage of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Noticing that an otter’s fur was saturated with oil, he wondered if hair could help clean up oil.

He collected five pounds of hair from his shop, stuffed it in a pair of his wife’s pantyhose, tied the feet together into a ring and put it in his son’s wading pool with some oil.

With some scientists’ help, McCrory learned that hair doesn’t exactly soak up the oil but that oil clings to thousands of tiny scales on hair shafts. He applied for a patent on the idea in 1993, and got it in 1995.

NASA engineers in the United States did some tests in 1998, showing that hair would indeed help clean up oil.

However, marine biologist Rex Sadaba of the University of the Philippines Visayas isn’t sold on using hair or chicken feathers, and says abundant materials such as straw may be better.

Sadaba said hair takes time to degrade, does not really absorb oil and may not be hygienic.

“I also don’t agree with using feathers, because it stinks when it rots, and that will cause additional problems,” he said.

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